Trepanners open their minds with a hole in the head

by Rob Gilhooly

Amanda Feilding spent four years searching for a surgeon to perform the operation. Several agreed, then backed out at the last minute, fearing the consequences if anything went wrong.

Finally, she decided to do it herself.

After administering a local anesthetic, she took out an electric dentist’s drill and bored a hole in her skull. A few hours and a liter of blood-loss later, a scarf wrapped around her head, she went to a party.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’m a sculptor, I may as well do it myself,’ ” Feilding recalls of the self-trepanation she performed in her London apartment when she was 27. Speaking last month, she added: “In the hours that followed I noticed a kind of slow rising, a quietness. I felt more free, more positive. I was more relaxed, but at the same time I felt a greater energy within me. Even my mother, who had been dead against the idea, said she noticed a difference.”

Throughout the 30 years since then, Feilding has remained convinced of the therapeutic benefits of trepanation. Today, she promotes research into the procedure and provides information about it through her organizations, the Trepanation Trust and The Foundation to Further Consciousness, based at her 15th-century manor house in Oxfordshire, 80 km west of London.

She has even run for Parliament: “Vote Feilding — Trepanation for the National Health,” read her 1983 campaign posters.

Last year, she visited a neurosurgeon in Mexico who, with an old-fashioned manual trephine, drilled another hole in her skull — this one, at 2-cm diameter, about twice the size of the first.

Did it make a difference?

“Of course!” says Feilding, who majored in comparative religions at Oxford University and is a descendent of the Habsburg family that ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the 13th century till the end of World War I. “Why else would I still be hammering on about such an unpopular subject?”

To the top

Trepanation — the removal of a piece of bone from the skull — has not always been so unpopular. In fact, it is believed to have been man’s earliest surgical intervention on the head, and trepanned skulls have been found on all five continents, some dating back 10,000 years. As a tribal custom it is still practiced in parts of Africa, most famously by the Kissi people of Kenya.

Though anthropologists believe it was traditionally used to expel evil spirits, even from ancient times trepanation has been performed to treat a variety of more tangible conditions, from headaches to insanity. As mankind learned to work stone and metals, it also became a means of treating depressed skulls caused, for example, by weapons. As a medical procedure, it was first described almost 2,500 years ago by “The Father of Medicine,” Hippocrates himself.

Nowadays, trepanation is a routine surgical technique. In particular, it is often performed to treat subdural hematoma — life-threatening bleeding from membranes covering the brain — which can occur after a blow to the head.

Feilding, however, has suffered no such injury, and her reasons for going around with holes in her skull are far from ones you’d find in any medical textbook. “It’s a way of expanding consciousness,” she says. “It enables a wider field of awareness and improves the function of the brain.”

She is not alone in her beliefs. Peter Halvorson, a 54-year-old American who trepanned himself in 1972 after suffering acute depression, says he knows of 60 others who have undergone voluntary trepanation for similar reasons. Indeed, he’s in regular contact with many of them all over the world through the International Trepanation Advocacy Group, of which he is director.

Halvorson says that anyone who has pumped iron, run long distances or taken what he terms “psychovitamins” (psychoactive drugs) will have experienced effects similar to trepanees. “When blood builds up in the capillaries, you have a greater awareness. It’s like artists on acid or something, who become more aware of colors. It’s an easy way to get to the top.”

Third eye open

Both Feilding and Halvorson were greatly influenced by a Dutchman named Bart Huges who, in 1962, published a short paper written in the form of a scroll. Titled “Large Mechanism of Brainbloodvolume,” this postulated that a person’s level of consciousness depends on the quantity of blood supplied to the brain. This naturally falls with age the longer we walk upright, he claimed, going on to argue that also due to the closing of the cranial sutures, adults display decreased awareness and creativity compared to children.

A former medical student at Amsterdam University, Huges argued that young children are at an advantage in consciousness terms. This, he said, was due to the “natural trepanation effect” of the boneless fontanel areas of their craniums, which allow greater elasticity and pulsation in the brain. Adults can regain this heightened consciousness through trepanation, he said, since this acts like a valve, decreasing pressure and allowing the brain to pulsate more freely.

This effect is also felt by a small percentage of adults whose sutures never close, resulting in a natural hole, or “third eye,” Halvorson says. “John Lennon once asked Huges to trepan him, but Bart told him he was a third-eyer, so he wouldn’t notice any difference.”

Asked how Huges knew this, he said: “Intuition. Bart is an intuitive scientist. He doesn’t use instruments to get to his conclusions.”

Following his intuition and faith in his theory, Huges trepanned himself (and later wrote a book, “Trepanation: The Cure for Psychosis.”) The ensuing publicity, Feilding says, cost him his degree. Others have suggested it was also due to his advocacy of certain substance usage. (He reportedly named his first daughter Maria Juana.)

At different times, both Halvorson and Feilding have formed close relationships with Huges. While Feilding studied under him for several years, Halvorson — having dropped out of university in the late ’60s — traveled to Amsterdam and bumped into him there.

Like Feilding, Halvorson admits to having been “appalled at first by the idea of trepanation . . . But after [Huges] had filled me in on the factual details, I couldn’t see a reason for not doing it,” he says.

“It was a time of my life when I felt a certain dullness. I was very much a sealed-skull adult, and I was struggling with that. After the trepanation I felt a positive lift. There’s no doubt trepanation is an enhancement.”

Head cases

Doctors and neurologists are not so convinced. As well as warning of the potentially fatal consequences of intrusive cranial surgery by the unqualified, most also blast the lack of scientific proof behind Huges’ theory.

Takamitsu Fujimaki, a professor in the neurosurgery department at Teikyo University in Tokyo, agrees that trepanation can increase cerebral blood flow in some head-injury cases — but not blood volume. Hence, for a normal subject, boring a hole in their skull would be of no benefit, he says.

Keiji Kawamoto, a professor of neurosurgery at Kansai Medical University agrees. “If chronic subdural hematoma is removed by trepanation, it is clear that consciousness will be improved. But I have no data showing the consciousness level can be improved by trepanation in the case of a normal person.”

He says, however, that Huges’ hypothesis could be similar to the reason why trepanation was practiced in the past and why it is still used today among some African tribes.

Kawamoto’s own research into trepanation has taken him to Peru and Bolivia, where more than 1,000 trepanned skulls — more than from the rest of the world combined — have been found.

He explains that although new bone growth around the trepan holes of skulls found in Africa, Europe, South America and on South Pacific islands — some dating back thousands of years — is proof that the individual survived the operation, it is not always a clear indicator of why the trepanation was performed.

Many excavated skulls reveal just one trepanation, indicating that the hole — often made by scraping or sawing out a section of the skull with a stone or saw — was likely made as a one-off medical operation, he says. However, as other skulls have several holes, he believes that in such cases medicine men may have promoted trepanation to treat psychological conditions. At the slightest recurrence, he suggests, patients would seek further treatment, and another hole would be made.

Takao Suzuki, a paleopathologist who has studied aspects of trepanation in the United States, takes this a step further. “After any surgical operation, the patient often believes a kind of renewal process has occurred. It’s a mood enhancer, a pick-me-up. Trepanation may have a similar impact. It could be that thousands of years ago such a hypothesis was put forward by the chief of a tribe, and it caught on,” says Suzuki, who is also vice director of Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology.

The sixth sense

Back in her manor house in England, Feilding, too, concedes that Huges’ theory lacks a scientific basis. She also admitted that his “intuitive” approach is a source of agitation in the scientific community, which regards voluntary trepanation as “mere superstition and highly dangerous.”

Last year, Feilding addressed an international colloquium on trepanation at the University of Birmingham in central England. “When I told them I had trepanned myself to expand my consciousness, they were absolutely horrified,” she says. “In the scientific world, to presume that trepanation was or might still be for anything other than a medical purpose is sheer taboo.”

Meanwhile, Halvorson’s efforts at gaining acceptance have landed him in more serious trouble. In April last year, he invited a television crew to film a trepanation on a British woman, Heather Perry, who had set her heart on having it done after hearing that John Lennon had wanted a hole in his head too. When ABC’s nationwide “20/20″ show aired the scenes, which were shot at a Utah ranch, the backlash was fast and furious. Halvorson and a friend, William Lyons (who, along with his wife Betty, has also been trepanned) were arrested and charged with practicing medicine without a license. They pleaded guilty, and this April they were fined $500 and placed on a three-year probation. They were also ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation.

Open minds

The had, however, achieved their goal: An estimated 30 million viewers tuned in to watch the gory spectacle.

“It was an impactful media event,” says Halvorson. “Its presentation was shocking, but the feedback from the public was positive. We had a chance to explain the concept — it wasn’t just ‘They’re gonna drill a hole in someone’s brain, aren’t they sick’ kinda stuff that the media has tended to put out before.”

What’s more, Perry, 30, reportedly claims that the 2-cm hole bored in her skull has ended her battle with chronic fatigue syndrome and depression. Halvorson says she has since entered a British university on a masters course.

Perry is just one of dozens of people who have, over the years, contacted both Feilding and Halvorson and expressed a desire to be trepanned. In response, neither advocates self-trepanation, which Feilding says “is not that difficult or dangerous, but it does require a huge emotional effort.” This, coupled with the skeptical attitude of doctors in the West, has led both to look further afield for surgeons to help.

Recently, both of them separately located neurosurgeons in Mexico who agreed to perform the operation for a fee of around $2,500. As well, Feilding has found a surgeon in Cairo who, in 1996, trepanned her husband, Lord James Neidpath, who was a tutor of Bill Clinton’s during his non-inhaling Oxford days. The operation, she says, cured her husband’s long-standing migraine problem.

“The doctors are U.S.-educated, highly skilled and interested in our cause,” Halvorson says. “Basically, I got from Mexican doctors in a few months what I was unable to get from American doctors in 20 years.”

It was one of these surgeons who trepanned Feilding last year. “It served as a test of his ability,” she explains.

In the past year, eight people have gone through Halvorson’s contact, all reporting positive results from the operation, which takes around 15 minutes, he says. Two of them, both Americans who had previously suffered from depression, have recovered and are now able to hold down full-time jobs — something they could not have contemplated before, he says.

What’s more, MRI brain scans of all the patients done before and after trepanation showed it brought about an increase in blood volume in the brain, Halvorson adds. Similar results were also recorded in the case of two of Feilding’s referrals, she says.

Feilding smiled when I commented that trepanation is now basically available to anyone who wants it — not on the National Health exactly, but available nonetheless. Would she, then, be prepared to let her two sons be trepanned?

“I certainly wouldn’t stop them. I think it’s a benefit so I would encourage them if it’s something they wanted.”

I asked one of them, Rocky (who has just graduated from Oxford and who, his mother says, hopes to become a politician), if he would have it done.

“I might,” he says. “But I certainly wouldn’t do it just because my parents have.”

As I prepared to leave, I noticed hanging on a wall a picture of Feilding probably dating back to her 20s. Belying her model-like poise was a slightly sardonic expression.

Feilding today is an equally graceful figure, though her expression is more difficult to read. So much so, in fact, that I was never sure if it was with weariness or delight that she greeted my questions. She tells me she “was born, and will die, an outsider,” yet she insists she’ll never lose her ability to maintain an open mind, despite her uphill battle against “perceived social norms.”

Did she have any regrets? Had the 30 years since she first made a hole in her skull been profitably spent?

“The other day, my youngest son Cosmo asked me, ‘What would you do, Mum, if it was proved to be a load of rubbish?’

“In many ways, it would be a huge relief. I’d be able to go on holiday and paint more. But, I’d have to be convinced; and the evidence I have seen so far seems to prove I’m right.”